Life has certainly been turbulent for Davy Russell since this time exactly a year ago, but one of Ireland’s most popular riders enjoyed glorious vindication in a Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup which hung on a knife edge.
On this very day in 2013, Russell was in hospital with a punctured lung and missed the prestige ride on eventual runner-up Sir Des Champs, but his career was to suffer another dramatic twist when finding out on New Year’s Eve his contract as No 1 jockey for the powerful Gigginstown Stud operation was to be terminated.
In trainer Jim Culloty, he found a supportive shoulder, and the man who rode his third consecutive Gold Cup on Best Mate a decade earlier provided him with the Festival salvation of Lord Windermere, who survived a long stewards’ inquiry for getting close to the short-headed runner-up On His Own. There cannot have been many more dramatic afternoons on even National Hunt racing’s hallowed turf, with Ruby Walsh already removed from the equation with a broken arm following a fall in the first race, and Willie Mullins not even able to use second jockey Paul Townend as he had been stood down.
David Casey was legged up on Mullins’ reformed handicapper On His Own, owned by Hawick-born Graham Wylie and his wife Andrea to make an early bid for the lead and was going far better than 20-1 chance Lord Windermere, who was anchored at the back of the field.
Defending champion and Bobs Worth rarely seemed to have Barry Geraghty’s confidence either, with the 6-4 favourite frequently needed to be harried along but stubbornly remaining in contention.
There were six holding a valid chance turning for home but the entire shape of the race changed after the last fence, with King George hero Silviniaco Conti suddenly losing his grip on the slight lead he had established as he wandered into the centre of the track and Bobs Worth veering to the left.
A cavalcade of three swept down the stands side, with Lord Windermere rattling up the hill as he did in last year’s RSA Chase, edging right but just containing On His Own and The Giant Bolster (third), who suffered interference himself at the penultimate fence but placed in a tremendous third consecutive Gold Cup. “I was never in the race, the whole field was in front of me for the whole race, I had to sit and suffer the whole way. From the top of the hill I started to think I had a squeak,” said Russell. “I saw Silviniaco Conti coming across and he shied away a little but ran the whole way to the line. David Casey thought he was intimidated a bit but he was never going to get by. I think the stewards thought the best horse won.”
Russell, who has remained dignified through his troubles, was gaining a first victory in a Cheltenham feature and eventually rode two more for Gigginstown.
He said: “What I’ve said all along is ‘that’s life’. You shut your mouth and move on. I spoke to a number of people but it’s happened, it’s done. It’s over. I think I was with Jim the day after [losing the job], and he and Dr Lambe [owner]have been great supporters. I couldn’t ride a winner for Jim all year, but he kept saying to me ‘wait for Cheltenham’.
“Regardless of what’s happened I had three falls this week and rode very poorly on some occasions. All of a sudden I ride a nice horse in the first [Triumph Hurdle winner Tiger Roll], I’ve a good horse in the Gold Cup and he wins.”
Culloty is only the fourth man to ride and train a Gold Cup winner. “To be fair halfway round Davy Russell was getting the sack!” he said after an inquiry which took 15 minutes. “Those were the worst few minutes of my life. This is so unbelievable I almost expected to lose the race. I knew he’d take his time but that was waiting tactics exaggerated.”
Connections of the supplemented On His Own were entitled to feel aggrieved and Casey, who was given a seven-day whip ban, said: “I’m sick as a parrot. I got a great ride through and I just got done. I thought when I landed at the last, even though Davy jumped past me, I still had a chance and he picked up again – the rest is history. It could be worse, I was fortunate enough to get the ride as two other lads got injured and I was next in line.”
Mullins said: “I thought he was interfered with and he was beaten a short head and was in front after the line. The stewards felt he didn’t deserve to get it and what more can I do at this stage.”
Mullins said he would speak to Wylie and take further advice before deciding whether to lodge an appeal.